July 23, 1999
Busload of grubby, sweaty teens is probably detasselersWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The annual Midwestern tradition of corn detasseling has officially begun, as thousands of junior high and high school students earn money by yanking tassels from corn stalks.
Here's a quick biology lesson about why they're paid do it:
The producer wants to cross-breed two varieties of corn to create seed that has some of the best qualities of each variety. But Purdue agronomist Bob Nielsen notes that a corn plant left to grow on its own will pollinate itself. That's because each plant has a tassel, which contains the male flower that disperses pollen, and the thread-like silks, which contain the female flowers that "catch" the pollen and produce a corn kernel.
The seed corn producer doesn't want the plants to self-pollinate; he wants to ensure cross-pollination between the two varieties of corn in his field. He hires detasselers because the only way for a detasseled plant to be pollinated is by another corn plant that has a tassel.
Nielsen says designated male plants of one variety and female corn plants of a second variety are usually arranged in a pattern throughout the seed production field of about six female rows (detasseled) and two male rows (pollen providers).
Timing is important. Detassel too early and there is a risk of decreasing the yield of seed corn. But wait too long and the corn plant will have started to pollinate itself, resulting in the corn's natural seed instead of the hybrid seed.
To remove the tassel, the kids grab the tassel at the top of the plant, yank it off, then throw it on the ground. They can walk corn rows two or three times before they completely clear a field.
According to Oetting's Detasseling, a detasseling company, in an average summer about 100,000 people, mostly students ages 13 and up, join in this Midwestern tradition. The annual call for detasselers has been issued for about 50 years, and nobody thus far has perfected a mechanical replacement for the human touch.
For the students working in the corn fields, this is a chance not only to make extra money (they start at $5 an hour, with a chance to earn raises and bonuses), but also to obtain fundamental skills that will carry them through life, according to Bill Marty, an independent contractor who manages a detasseling crew. "This is an opportunity for them to learn trust and responsibility," he says. "Our goal is to teach them to be self-motivated and to do good work whether we're watching them or not."
Ben Needham, a student at West Lafayette High School and a first-year member of Marty's detasseling crew, says he would choose to work in the humid outdoors instead of an air-conditioned store any day. "I don't care to work inside," Needham says. "The work does get hard after a while, but I keep going. I think it's good experience being able to tolerate the elements."
Shane Rusk, another West Lafayette student and second-time detasseler, thinks tolerating the elements is a great way to get in shape even though the physical labor does have its drawbacks. "It's hard work," Rusk says. "People get paper cuts and dehydrated sometimes, and the sun really gets hot. But this physical labor is great because it helps me get back in shape in time for football season."
Vicky Simmerman-Needham, Ben's mother, says the experience teaches perseverance. "It's also very rewarding. My boys feel big and responsible, and if they do good work, they get promoted," she says.
There are three buses that take the students to the fields, she says. "First-time corn detasselers get on the third bus, then when they become more experienced, they move up to the second bus and so on. Finally, there is an opportunity to become a crew leader; someone who teaches all the beginners how to detassel the corn," she says. "That system is a great way to teach kids about working hard to earn a good position."
Sources: Bob Nielsen, (765) 494-4802, firstname.lastname@example.org
Oetting's Detasseling, (815) 879-3035
Bill Marty, (765) 463-6844
Ben Needham and Vicky Simmerman-Needham, (765) 497-4060
Shane Rusk, (765) 746-4300
Writer: Naomi J. Haley, (765) 494-8396, email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; firstname.lastname@example.org
Shane Rusk of West Lafayette wades through a sea of seed corn near Remington, Ind. The 14-year-old has been detasseling corn for two seasons. (Purdue Ag Communication Service Photo by Tom Campbell)
Electronic transmission, and Web and ftp download available. Photo ID: Nielsen.detassel